Why the world needs an African ecofeminist future
Orthodox economic models have failed us all, but women across Africa are resisting them and coming up with visionary alternatives.
We need an “African ecofeminist future”. And by we, I don’t just mean Africa, I mean everyone.
I say this for two reasons. Firstly, Africa is now the “final frontier” for economic models that have already ecologically compromised the rest of the planet. Not long ago touted as the world’s “basket case” but now covetously viewed as its future breadbasket, a sustainable alternative in Africa is possibly the final bastion against global environmental degradation.
Secondly, women and feminist activists are already on the front line of the battle for ecological sustainability on the continent. Their everyday struggles, uncompromised commitment, and willingness to envision a radical future in which justice, equity and rights harmonise with environmental sovereignty have the potential to save us all.
So what is ecofeminism, and why African ecofeminism specifically? Ecofeminist activism grew out of feminist, peace, and ecology movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Intersectional ecofeminism also underscores the importance of gender, race, and class, interlinking feminist concerns with human oppressions within patriarchy and the exploitations of a natural environment that women are often more reliant upon but also its guardians in many cultural contexts.
But whilst the broader movement has sometimes been bogged down in a divisive debate over whether gendered associations with nature essentialise women, movements engaged in feminist and ecological activism in Africa have simply gotten busy building strategic and political alliances between women, nature, and protection of the environment.
Wangari Maathai and her Green Belt Movement arguably epitomise the essence of African ecofeminism and the collective activism that defines it. As the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2004, Maathai highlighted the close relationship between African feminism and African ecological activism, which challenge both the patriarchal and neo-colonial structures undermining the continent. Lesser-known activists, however, have also long been at the intersection of gender, economic, and ecological justice.
Ruth Nyambura of the African EcoFeminist Collective, for example, uses radical and African feminist traditions to critique power, challenge multinational capitalism, and re-imagine a more equitable world. Organisations like African Women Unite Against Destructive Resource Extraction (WoMin) campaign against the devastation of extractive industries. Meanwhile, localised organising is also resisting ecologically-damaging corporatisation: in South Africa, Women Mapella residents fought off land grabs by mining companies; in Ghana, the Concerned Farmers Association, led largely by women, held mining companies accountable for pollution of local watersheds; and in Uganda, women of the Kizibi community seed bank are preserving local biodiversity in the face of the commercialisation of seeds by corporate multinationals.
These activists on these front lines are fighting back, but they are also offering visions of alternative development models that demand both gender and economic justice. In doing so, they ask us all to reconsider what constitutes “progress” in the first place.
Women, the environment and biodiversity
African women are often at the heart of communities dealing with huge changes related to economic development and shoulder the burden of environmental mismanagement. These concerns are multi-layered and range from agrarian justice through to extractivism, but one issue that particularly clearly demonstrates the importance of African ecofeminism today is the threat to seed biodiversity.
This is an increasingly worrying concern. In the 20th century, an alarming 75% of crop biodiversity was lost, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, and this trend has continued since. In the last decade, for example, Europe and Central Asia have seen 42% of their terrestrial animal and plant species decline in population size, partially due to intensive agriculture and forestry practices, with more natural resources being consumed than produced.
Currently, the Green Revolutions seen in Europe, the US and, more recently, parts of Asia – which have involved moving from subsistence agriculture to industrialised farming, cash cropping and mono-cropping – remain at the forefront of thinking around economic growth and food security. However, there is increasing evidence that this corporate-driven vision, which has dominated development trajectories over the last century, has failed on several fronts.
Not only has it failed to address hunger despite overproduction, it has indirectly reinforced biodiversity losses and therefore nature’s more holistic contributions to a sustainable environment. Before the Green Revolution in India, for example, there were roughly 50,000 varieties of rice. Within 20 years, this dropped to just 40. This has resulted in the loss of crops once part of diverse food baskets as well as a degradation of farmers’ ownership and control over seeds.
Seed sovereignty is, therefore, a key pillar of ecofeminism, and the relationship between seed biodiversity and women is particularly critical. Women, who are often central to domestic food production, are also frequently the custodians of seeds that reproduce balanced, varied and nutritional diets. In Africa, female farmers often preserve diverse (and indigenous) crops that remain off the cash-cropping agenda, from myriad varieties of spinach and cassava to the less well-known acha, a paleo grain native to parts of the Sahel.
Among other things, women’s indigenous knowledge around seeds and their selection, storage, and planting of diverse and often hardy crops increase climate resilience, placing them right on the frontline of the battle against climate change. By contrast, extensive mono-cropping has actually made agriculture more vulnerable to pests, disease and drought, often leading to a dependence on the pesticides and fertilisers produced by the same companies that sell the commercial seeds now being pushed across Africa.
Indeed, commercial seed capture on the continent is on the rise, with corporate-invested pushes towards regulations that authorise the planting of only selected seeds. Hybrid seeds aimed at maximising yields, in particular, are being prioritised. This is deeply problematic as hybrid seeds cannot be replanted, meaning farmers must buy new ones each season. Through this, farmers lose their autonomy, while the women who’ve been custodians of seed knowledge for centuries are disempowered. The commercialisation of seeds is therefore not just reducing variety and undermining climate resilience, but also compromising food sovereignty as a small cabal of multi-nationals monopolise the market.
Visioning something better
An info-graphic making the social media rounds a few years ago highlighted that if everyone on the planet consumed like in the United States, we would need 4.4 Planet Earths. The reality that accepted models of development are unsustainable is no longer news to most. Meanwhile, there is a growing public awareness around threats to biodiversity and climate resilience as well as of the tensions that have arisen as a result of corporate-driven agricultural agendas.
And yet, most African governments remain anchored to the idea of a Western-inspired green revolution and are beholden to donor support (from the West as well as China) that is often invested in agribusiness expansion. Policy spaces still rarely welcome the voices of smallholder farmers and those working at the grassroots, leaving alternative positions and challenges to orthodox models of economic development on the margins of regional and global tables where decisions are brokered.
Undeterred, however, ecofeminists continue to fight at the coalface of this struggle. From Ghana to South Africa and beyond, women-organised seed-sharing initiatives continue to resist corporatisation. Activists like Mariama Sonko in Senegal continue to lead on agroecological farming initiatives for localised and sustainable food production.
Ultimately, the crisis of Africa’s current trajectory is a crisis of visioning: the inability of the continent’s leaders to imagine a process of development less destructive, more equitable, less unjust, more uniquely African, and – quite simply – more exciting. The positions, passions, and holistic approaches offered by African ecofeminism provide key ingredients for an alternative to the capital-centric ideals of economic growth that have defined progress so far. These have not only wreaked havoc on global ecological sustainability but have failed to deliver a genuinely equitable or just society anywhere. It’s time to start dreaming and delivering an African future that can do better than that.